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Clearing Customs

When you travel across the U.S. / Canadian border you will be asked to declare whether you are bringing certain types of goods with you.  Generally speaking, items that you bring into either country for your personal use during your visit are considered “personal baggage” and are exempt from duties and taxes. Examples include your car, clothing, personal food, camping and sports equipment, boats, snowmobiles, fuel, personal computers and cameras.

Bringing any other type of goods across the border is considered “importing” and you may be subject to duties and taxes.  Customs officials are therefore focused on establishing whether you are truly bringing the goods in for your personal use.

We have separate pages discussing what you must declare, prohibited items,  duty-free shopping, and calculating how much you will pay in duties.  We also have a very helpful calculator for estimating Canadian Duties.

The Customs Process at the U.S. Canadian Border

When driving your personal vehicle across the border you will make a verbal representation to the Customs official about whether you have any goods to declare.  If you don’t, you will be allowed to continue on across the border.  If you do have something to declare, you will need to pay duties and taxes on the items before you are allowed to proceed.  If you say you have nothing to declare, but the Customs Official questions your honesty, you will be pulled aside for a secondary inspection of your vehicle.

At U.S. ports you can pay your duty in cash (no foreign currency), by personal check in the exact amount (drawn on a U.S. bank and made payable to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection), by government check, money order or traveler’s check (if it doesn’t exceed the duty owed by more than $50). If you’re paying by check, you’ll be asked to show identification such as your passport or U.S. driver’s license.  You may be able to pay by MasterCard or VISA, but you should confirm it is available at the port you plan to use and be prepared to pay by cash or check if something goes wrong.

At Canadian ports you can pay by cash, travelers check, Visa, American Express or MasterCard. Debit cards are also accepted at most offices. If an amount is not more than CAN$2,500, you can sometimes pay by personal check.  At both ports, you should receive a receipt showing the duty calculations and amount you paid.

Bringing Jewelry and other Valuables across the border

Don’t bring them. Other than the obvious risk of loss, it is often difficult to validate that you brought jewelry or other valuables with you as opposed to purchasing them on your trip.  If you must bring them, see our page on pre-trip registration procedures .

General Recommendations:

  • If you are going to be carrying large amounts of consumable products, such as food or fuel, you should contact the Customs office before you begin your trip to determine what special measures you should take. This will help you avoid duties for importation.
  • Do not wrap Christmas gifts before crossing the border.  You may be required to unwrap the gifts so a border agent can inspect it.
  • If you have used items that look like they might have been purchased on your trip you could be asked to pay duties on them. You can avoid this by registering them before you leave the country or by bringing proof-of-purchase documents such as sales receipts, insurance policies or jeweler’s appraisals .
  • Do not bring more than a pack or two of cigarettes or other tobacco products.   If they spot more than that the question of importing will come up and you may be asked additional questions.
  • Special Note: Customs Officials know that vehicle imports are one of the most commonly undervalued goods and they take a hard-line when the purchase price is misrepresented.  This can result in penalties as high as 55% of the amount that was not declared, forfeiture of the vehicle, and criminal prosecution.
  • If you have prescription drugs make sure they are well labeled.  It is best to carry the original bottle they came in rather than transferring them to generic travel containers.  See our page on What to Declare for more information.
  • Border delays can run hours on heavy travel days so consider a restroom break before you get into a long queue of cars at the border crossing.

One final piece of advice: don’t lie.

If you suddenly remember that piece of fruit in your backpack, take your medicine on the spot even if it delays your journey because of a secondary screening.  The alternative?  If you are caught lying to a Canadian border officer you may win a multi-year ban from Canada. Lying to U.S. Customs Officers can earn you a lifetime ban.  Even if the bans are temporary, they will show up forever on the computer screens for international border agents.   You will be viewed with increased suspicion for the rest of your life, and will be much more likely to receive in-depth interrogation and full vehicle searches.  You’ve been warned.